I was introduced to a profound statement by William Temple many a year ago that has guided my reflections on worship.
“Both for perplexity and dulled conscience the remedy is the same: sincere and spiritual worship. For worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness, the nourishment of mind with his truth, the purifying of the imagination by his beauty, the opening of the heart to his love, the surrender of the will to his purpose … and all of this gathered up into adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable…”
These words have set the gold standard by which to measure what is meant when we use the noun to define worship and the verb to refer to the act of worship.
The submission of all our nature and the integration of all our life into adoration and self-giving love describes a deep rootedness of mind and soul in the love of God.
Temple (1881-1944) was far too alert to the social and moral problems of society and church in his day as well as the dangers and tensions of national and international politics to ever be described as “other-worldly,” vaguely mystical or naive about human capacities for evil and destructive purposes.
Author of several books, including “Christianity and the Social Order” (1942), Temple contributed much to Anglican moral theology and social teachings.
He served as Archbishop of York (1929-42) and Archbishop of Canterbury (1942-44), and in 1942 jointly founded, with Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz, the Council of Christians and Jews to combat anti-Semitism and Jewish persecution.
What I find interesting and enduring in his words quoted above, is that they still identify the deficit of life meaning and the dissolving of moral imperatives that contribute decisively to our 21st-century malaise.
“Readings in John’s Gospel,” in which the statement appears, is a two-volume series of meditations written between 1939 and completed in 1945—precisely the years when the world was confronted by dictators who demanded obedience of conscience, mind, imagination, heart and will, and ultimately self-sacrifice in the name of the human will to power.
These words of Temple are much more than a prose poem for devotional souls; they provide a set of criteria as specific as a barcode that enables us to critique and unmask those lesser, life diminishing, penultimate goals of human life too often presented to us as life’s ultimates.
Conscience, mind, imagination, emotion and will are precisely those aspects of our humanity that require us to be dedicated to recognizing, cherishing, healing, loving and enabling to flourish the very humanity in which such remarkable capacities exist.
A Christian anthropology is open eyed about human sinfulness and open hearted to the grace that renews, restores, enables and recreates the image of God in us.
Temple knew this, as evidenced by the rest of the quotation, which balances the urgency of worship with the realism about human waywardness and a distorted sense of our own importance:
“… and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable, and therefore the chief remedy of that self-centeredness, which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.”
I wonder if a key part of the church’s mission today is to demonstrate attractively, enact convincingly, perform persuasively, live credibly and witness faithfully by worship, which has the height, depth and length and breadth of the love of God—that immense gracious love drawing from us an answering adoration that distills into a new and radical discipleship.
James Gordon recently retired as principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He continues to lecture there in church history and systematic theology. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.
Part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.